This introduction discusses a variety of difficulties in the study of “attention,” focusing on the Romantic period in Britain as a particularly undisciplined and unruly moment when, despite various attempts to discipline it, attention oscillated from medicine to pedagogy, from philosophy to science, and from politics to poetics. 1798 emerges as a pivotal year for this crisis—when Alexander Crichton first diagnoses attention’s maladies, when Wordsworth laments the “savage torpor” in the minds of his readers, and when the British government amps up demands that every civilian keep watch for invasion. This confluence of concerns about attention sets the stage for a Romantic poetics that, following William Cowper, finds in the act of reading both absorption and loss, attention and lapse. William Blake’s poem “The Shepherd” exemplifies how the Romantic poetics of attention criticizes the militarization of attention and pastoral power, while also introducing gentler, alternatives modes of keeping watch.
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